Big Boy (2011) takes place in the aftermath of the second world war, in Middle of Nowhere, Mindoro. The opening credits roll to the sound of 1950’s radio adverts, then cut immediately to water dripping into a milk can, and then what the censors would refer to as a “pumping scene” between a couple we will later find out are the parents of our protagonist: Julio, aka Big Boy.
Julio is the eldest in a brood that grows far too large to adequately sustain itself, and thus becomes not only the guinea pig but the poster boy for a growth serum that will serve as the family’s antidote to its despondency. Julio’s parents cure “cod liver” oil from fish guts in a makeshift lab, its effectiveness proven only in photographs that portray him as taller than average.
His growth spurts are notched on the bamboo poles supporting the family nipa hut. This way, approval from his father seems welcome, but Julio must pay for it according to the strictures of scientific method. His siblings run free; he has grown distant from the village. He seems mute, wearing a doleful look. Julio has become Big Boy, the mascot of his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, deep in the fastnesses of Mindoro. One day he stops growing.
At the beginning of Big Boy, the family finds a parachute filled with canned goods, vitamins, and other basic commodities “mysteriously” caught in a tree on their property. What should have been a source of temporary relief becomes a sole means of survival for the family, who increasingly derive a sense of value and dependency on American products and doleouts, which later becomes an obsession with a largely misguided reading of the American dream. Fixations on height, mestizo features, and U.S. Surplus goods abound in a plot that is slowly driven forward by the promises that await elsewhere.
What Big Boy succeeds at reminding me of is how I have next to no concept of provincial life: I can’t even begin to imagine a daily routine that only involves sleeping, eating, fucking my spouse, and growing in only a fraction of the myriad ways that growth is possible. You can grow a family, watch the world sprout up around you, but there’s not much hope for change in the midst of all that when you have your head planted firmly up your own ass. It’s one thing to change your environment and quite another to just leave. But this isn’t even an option for those with no concept of looking any further than their own backyards, and for Julio and his family, Middle of Nowhere, Mindoro is pretty much all there is.
This only magnifies the resemblance between Mindoro, circa 1950, and Anybarrio, Philippines today. That Seno and co. shot this movie on location in circumstances bearing very few differences from their postwar precedents, shows the damage done not by war or colonial power, but by the continuation to shift the blame, as well as our own mendicancy and obsession with keeping up appearances.
Shot entirely on Super 8, the film makes use of repetition to illustrate a life reduced to an endless chain of waiting. But what awaits people like Julio who don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to improving their lot? What is over that hill for those whose days all look the same?
What Big Boy does to this perception of growth as a universal goal is to present a silver bullet against the ills that constrain it. In Big Boy, cod liver oil becomes an antidote against the inevitability and incurability of having to wake up each day in the body you were born in.